New England’s Dark Day
New England’s Dark Day refers to an event on May 19, 1780, when an unusual darkening of the day sky was observed over the New England states and parts of Canada. The darkness was so complete that candles were required from noon on. It did not disperse until the middle of the next night.
The earliest report of darkness came from New York where the sun was already obscured at sunrise. Samuel Williams observed from Cambridge that: “This extraordinary darkness came on between the hours of 10 and 11 am and continued till the middle of the next night.” In Massachusetts, peak obscurity occurred “by 12”. At Harvard College, the obscuration was reported to arrive at 10:30 am, abating by 1:10 pm, although a heavy overcast remained for the rest of the day.
At 2:00 pm, roosters crowed, woodcocks whistled, and frogs peeped as if darkness had fallen. A witness reported that a strong sooty smell prevailed in the atmosphere, and that rain water had a light film over it that was made up of particles of burnt leaves and ash.
For several days before the Dark Day, the sun appeared red, and the sky yellow. While the darkness was present, soot was observed to be collected in rivers and in rain water, suggesting the presence of smoke. Also, at night observers saw the moon coloured red. For portions of New England, the morning of May 19, 1780 was characterised by rain, indicating that cloud cover was present.
Since communications technology of the day was primitive, most people found the darkness to be baffling and inexplicable. Many applied religious interpretations to the event. However, the likely cause of the Dark Day was smoke from massive forest fires. When a fire does not kill a tree and the tree later grows, scar marks are left in the growth rings. This makes it possible to approximate the date of a past fire. Researchers examining the scar damage in Ontario, Canada, attribute the Dark Day to a large fire in the area that is today occupied by Algonquin Provincial Park.
[I realise while I post this, though when I first started reading about it I did not realise it regarded forest fires, that there are currently massive bush fires in Australia, so I’d like to say that I hope any Australians who might read this, and their families and friends, are safe and well.]
[Image Source: The only known depiction of New England’s Dark Day taken from Our First History by Richard Devens (1876)]